Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Changing Face of Censorship

Censorship was a big subject again this year. With the internet still being a relatively new venue for expression, expect this to continue to be a hot button issue for years to come. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following stories from the past year about censorship: the blocking of Google in China and Iran, software being developed to circumvent that blocking software, NPR firing Juan Williams, Net Neutrality or Wikileaks. It is a great time to be alive if you love this subject like I do. I almost always come down on the side against censorship.

The Wikileaks story seems an awful lot like situation with the the Pentagon Papers in 1971. When the NY Times published leaked documents from the Pentagon almost 40 years ago, the reporters and leakers were thought of and portrayed to be heroes by many. They leaked confidential documents about the Vietnam War and most Americans responded positively to the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg and to the NY Times publishing of them. This is a sharp contrast to how Julian Assange is being received in regards to Wikileaks now. One has to wonder if the country is going backward on the censorship subject.

It is a good time to reflect on how far we have come. One good example of outrageous censorship in the past is 1950's television. April 16, 1959 CBS's Playhouse 90 did the first production ever of "Judgment at Nuremberg" in the form of a teleplay. Two years later it would be made into a major motion picture starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster. After the teleplay was filmed, the sponsor, American Gas Association, took offense to the many reference to the "gas" chambers. Since the film was about the holocaust and Nuremberg trials, they really couldn't change that. So as a compromise, they edited the word "gas" out of the film so that silence would replace it. So if someone in the film said "they were marched into the gas chambers," the film that played on television said, "they were marched into the ... chambers." I can't imagine this happening nowadays. Sponsors don't have that much power anymore. The explosion in media outlets might have a lot to do with that. Also, the public probably wouldn't let them get away with it.

Enough evidence exists that censorship almost always backfires. Rod Serling (one of my personal heroes) was infuriated over a lot of the changes he had to make on scripts. On his famous, Requiem for a Heavyweight, he had to remove the line "Got a match?" because Ronson Lighters was the sponsor. In 1956, he wrote a script called “Noon on Doomsday” for ABC's The United States Steel Hour based on the Emitt Till story, a 14 year old black boy in Mississippi who was recently killed by white supremacists for whistling at a white woman. ABC and the sponsor were flooded with thousands of letters and phone calls protesting about the script from members of the White Citizens Councils. Serling had to change his story from a black boy in Mississippi to a Jewish man in New England. He was so maddened by this experience he decided to start writing science fiction where you could easily hide controversial subjects in a Mars landscape or in a robot's gaze. So The Twilight Zone was born in anger and spite.

Watch two minutes of South Park ... that's all you need to do to see how far we have come in this situation. Writers and producers can pretty much do what they want on television these days. It is not perfect, obviously. You can't say "fuck" along with a slew of other words. We are more likely to censor due to politically correct reasons rather than for ... well ... the other side of the equation. Television networks no longer play the Seinfeld episode where Kramer accidentally burned a Puerto Rican flag. We are not perfect, but we are certainly better. As long as Julian Assange is not giving away launch codes or the positions of troops, I find him quite heroic. It is too bad the television media doesn't portray him that way.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dickens and My Xmas Spirit

Xmas is probably my least favorite time of the year. You can think of me as one of those people with seasonal blues. It is much better than it used to be. I used to get completely depressed this time of year and just want to hide the entire month. It wasn't until a Unitarian minister, Andrea, once suggested that I find the good things about the season and celebrate them. The bad: throw them out. I have been perfecting this holiday culling ever since.

The rampant materialism of the season is one of the biggest downers. I not only avoid big box stores this time of year, but towns that have big box stores in them. I try to buy gifts that have some meaning to me and hopefully to the recipient. . I also try to go as green and as local as possible. I can't deal with buying something that will just end up in a landfill a month later This year I bought my co-workers in NYC a bunch of Vermont made products. They will enjoy these and think of me while doing so. I also helped the local economy in the process. We decorate our tree tastefully and minimally and compost it in the yard afterwards. The amount of energy and resources being wasted on Xmas lights and lawn ornaments is soul crushing. I cannot go for a drive without shuttering ... and the music, don't get me going about the awful music that takes over the world.

I have stopped travelling for the holidays. The undertaking was too complicated and did nothing to bring any positive spirits into my life. Travelling to see my relatives usually had the opposite effect on my mood. So we stay home here in Vermont and have a quiet holiday. Since I hate most traditional holiday music I have compiled a good list of MP3's that I can deal with. Now I have a nice collection of holiday favorites by Bruce Cockburn, Gandalf Murphy and Shawn Colvin et al. On Xmas Eve we listen to some music, get a little toasted and then listen to the Grinch on CD (the audio is better than the video). It is quiet and simple and I am no longer depressed during the season. Thank you Andrea. Taking charge of your life rarely has a bad result.

It occurred to me today that one of the things I do enjoy about the holiday season is the sudden interest in Charles Dickens. I do realize it is only one book, The Christmas Carol, but it is a great book and it does seem to appear everywhere during December whether it is Patrick Stewart's reading of it or The Six Million Dollar Man's version ... the story is so canonized, it is everywhere. (Here is a good list of adaptations.) If just a small portion of the folks that are exposed to this classic during December decide to pick up one of his other books, this is enough to make me happy.

Dickens spent three months of his childhood working in a shoe polish factory pasting labels on bottles while his father resided in debtors prison. This experience had a deep impact on Charles' work. Much of his work involves the plight of the poor with some underlying socialistic themes which give an ironic twist to the largely materialistic holiday season. Much of Dickens' stuff was published in serial form but The Christmas Carol was only a novella so it was published without ever appearing in the newspaper. It was originally published in October 1843 with 6,000 copies in the original printing. They were all sold out by Xmas. He had published it entirely with his own money and barely made his money back. Since it was published, charitable giving has become apart of the holidays and it has shifted from a church holiday to a family holiday. That is quite an impressive legacy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Kuril Islands

I sometimes forget how close Japan is to Russia. The only thing between the island of Hokkaido and the Kamchatka Peninsula is a line of Pacific Islands called the Kuril Islands. If you look at the map they look like stepping stones. This is probably why they have been the object of dispute between the two nations for a very long time.

In 1945, while Americans were settling into their post-war lives, the Soviet Union continued fighting taking the four most northern islands (Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomia rocks) from Japan. We tend to be Euro-centric in our study of world history. We only hear about the land grab that occurred in Eastern Europe, but this is the first time I ever heard of this. Technically, the peace treaty between the two nations was never signed. As part of the Yalta Agreement the USSR was promised the islands south of Kamchatka, but thanks to some ambiguous language and disagreement between some geographers, no one agreed which islands this meant. During the summer of 1945 USSR troops invaded and took the islands. Two years later, all Japanese residents of the island were expelled.

This are is still disputed. When President Medvedev visited the island in November of this year he was met with a slew of protesters. He even posted his pictures on Twitter and he made it clear on who he believe owned the islands here are some of his twitter postings:
  • "It's the president's duty to control the development of all Russian regions, including the remotest ones"
  • "How many beautiful places there are in Russia!"

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fresh Water Eels Are Born in Salt Water

When I was a kid, we used to go fishing on the Pawcatuck River in Rhode Island. We were fishing for horn pout which is a fresh water catfish that is nocturnal and a bottom feeder. The worse thing that could happen was if an eel got on your line. You could tell it was an eel because they didn't actually tug the line, but the line would go limp in your fingers. This was probably because the eel was wrapped around your line. You felt it in your fingers because we were throw lines not poles (see my January 2010 posting on Catfish Noodling). When we pulled the eel out of the water, often it would wrap itself around your arm. They wiggle all over the place and are quite slimy. It is a real mess. You sometimes have to cut the line to get it off. You not only lose the fish but the tackle as well. It is not a very tasty fish with many bones so we usually were more upset about the loss of the tackle than the fish. It also took a lot of line to set up your tackle and line again. It was common knowledge that if you caught an eel, you were done in that spot for horn pout and had to move your boat. Apparently, they don't get along. I've never had this verified as truth, but it seemed true because if you caught an eel and didn't move, you didn't get another pout for the night.

Fresh water eels are actually spawned in the ocean. The word for this is catadromous. I might have respected them a little more if I had known this as a kid. They take quite a long trip to just end up on the floor of my row boat. The eels I used to catch were probably about 10 to 14 years old. When they are 14 years old, some of them head back to the ocean and spawn where they were born, probably the Sargasso Sea which is south of Bermuda. This is where the eel orgy takes place. Some of them make the trip, not just to my river in Southern Rhode Island but as far away as Norway or Ireland. It could take them close 200 days to get there. I have new found respect for these creatures.

Eel populations are threatened not only because fresh water dams (many without eel ladders) make it difficult for them to make their trip back to the Sargasso, the North American eel are dieing off due to a parasite called nematode. This was introduce to their population when someone in the 1970's or 80's introduce some European eels into the American river system. The parasite attacks their swimbladder which assists them on their journey in the ocean. Since the ocean is too deep for them to feed on the bottom, the swimbladder helps them travel on stored energy. Think of it as a battery cell. So they drowning on the way to spawning. All because of some Euro-trash eels.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Wall's Montreal Creation

It is an on-going debate among rock n' roll fans. We are divided in factions. Beatles' fans: some are John fans, some are Paul fans. To this day, I still argue in favor of John Lennon over Paul McCartney. Some love Paul ... what can I say, I am firmly in the John camp. Always will be. Stones fans: some love Mick, some love Kieth. The Who fans: Peter or Roger. U2 fans: Bono or The Edge. Dead fans: Jerry or Bob. I have had very long heated arguments over Pink Floyd with friends, if the subject is breached, it will start up again .... "Roger Waters made Pink Floyd, his words, his concept, it is his band, man." "No way man, Floyd would be nothing without the David Gilmour sound." We continue on drinking our beer and passing the bowl of .... uhm ... bowl of chili ... and it is never resolved. We love it this way. Clearly to me, Roger is a conceptual genius and one of the greatest rock lyricist, but he needs David Gilmour and vice versa. They are a great pairing. After hearing Roger's solo work and the Floyd albums without Roger .... lets just say the world is a better place if these two artists got along.

I saw Roger Waters for the first time last night at the Bell Centre in Montreal. He performed The Wall from start to finish and it was spectacular. As a kid, I saved up for weeks to purchase my vinyl copy of The Wall. I saved my allowance to buy it and I remember biking to Zayre to purchase it so that I could get my mother's employee discount. Biking home with a record album in a bag may not have been the best move. I had listened to my 8 track copy of Wish You Were Here, my brother's album of Dark Side of the Moon and my sister's album of Animals for so long, I really needed more. It was their 11th album, a concept album and a double album.

It came in out in 1979 when I was only 14 years old. It shook my world in a way that little has. The white album cover was stolid and chaste showing only brick. This depicted the main character of the album, Pink, with his rough and generic exterior. By looking at Pink you could never tell he was dying inside. When you opened the album, you could see the nightmare of Pink's internal life. It was full of isolation, hate of authority, sexual inadequacy and pain. Pink's mother was portrayed wearing a brick bra and his teacher towered over him and carried a bull whip.

This was back when albums had sides:
Side 1 portrays Pink's childhood with songs like Mother and Another Brick in the Wall.
Side 2 portrays his sexual awakening with Young Lust and One of My Turns. His longing for his father due to his death in the war with Goodbye Blue Sky. The side ends with the wall's final brick being laid and the words "good bye cruel world its over." The album could end there as a very depressing single album. At the concert last night, the intermission came as the wall was completed. 424 bricks covered the stage extending from floor to ceiling of the Bell Centre.
Side 3 and the second half of the concert starts with Hey You. Pink inside the wall trying to contact the outside world. His isolation is complete. His suicide attempt failed perhaps. It is unclear. Roger played this entire song from behind the wall. It was very odd, but affective. The stage was empty except for the wall.
Side 4 portrays Pink's breaking down the wall to the climax of The Trial and the denouement of Outside the Wall.

Obviously as a 14 year old kid, who was attempting to read all the Stephen King novels, this blew my mind. By the end of a year, I could recite all the lyrics from start to finish without the album playing. I might be able to do it now. I'd like to attribute The Wall with introducing me to literature, but I think Alexandre Dumas did that. Perhaps it did introduce me to modern literature. The idea of a voice in a story where the first person narrative twists reality. Without The Wall I don't think I would ever understand Huckleberry Finn or The Tropic of Cancer or even Citizen Kane. Without Roger Waters, Faulkner and Joyce would be alien or even insane to me. In my listening to The Wall, a lover of literature was created. For this, I love Roger and the rest of band. I feel more connected with him than anyone in my family and most of the people in my life. Perhaps after that sentence you might understand why The Wall was poignant to me.

The Wall 's creation myth begins in 1977, Montreal. In Parc Olympique the other side of the city from the Bell Centre, Floyd was touring for their 10th album Animals. Throughout the tour Roger had become more and more irritated with the fans. They seemed more interested in getting drunk and stoned than into the music. At that show he lost it and ended up having it out with a fan at the show. After the show he vented to Bob Ezrin (their producer) in a cab and said that he felt that there was a "wall" between him and the fans. A year or so later, Roger presented the band with two ideas for an album some of the songs already written, one was called The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and the other, The Wall. The band loved the concept of The Wall and thought it had more potential for songs than the other did. But they thought it was too personal. They all had been friends since college and saw way too much of Roger in this concept. He hated authority, had a bad relationship with his mom, lost his father in WW II etc. They weren't sure they wanted to embark on this journey with him. They might have been right because Roger's ego trips during the recording session drove the band apart. Some of them didn't even talk during the sessions and only flew in for the recordings. Perhaps it was worth it. Look what we got from it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Population Growth

At some point in the year 2011, the human population of the planet Earth will reach 7 billion people (for you visual folks that is 7,000,000,000 people). Since the mid 70's the world population has increased a billion every 11 or 12 years. So barring any major planetary event, the next billion will be sometime around 2023 or possibly sooner.

Since the planet is so massively over-populated, I have a very hard time celebrating the birth of children. When someone tells me that they are pregnant, I give them an obligatory "congrats," but to myself I am saying "what the hell are you thinking?" or "that's too bad" or "my condolences." I know I am not the only one. At a community gathering last week, someone announced the birth of a child, some people clapped but many abstained (I was in the latter group). Is this still a joyous occasion? Perhaps on a personal level it is, but big picture wise ... I say it again: what the hell are you thinking?

I don't want to make it seem like I don't like children. I happen to really love them. I love them so much that I really fear for the type of world we are handing over to them. I find the energy of children to be infectious and their minds are a joy. I find, in their presence, hope. If I were to decide to have children, there are plenty of children at orphanages around the planet that I could bring into my life. This is something my wife and I talk about often. I am actually more in favor of it than she is at this point. I know several couples, both straight and gay, that have adopted and I applaud their decision. They brought a child into their lives without adding to the stress on our planet's resources. This is a great thing.

If people don't think the planet is over-populated now, at what point will it be? 8 billion? 16 billion? Do we have to wait until all the polar caps are gone or we're going to war over clean water before people stop celebrating the birth of children? It seems to be elementary science or math to me. We have limited space and limited resources on the planet and we have an out of control factor of population, increasing at an exponential rate, draining these resources. Every time a person exhales they contribute to the warming of the planet. Every time a tree (aka planet coolers) is knocked down to make room for a person to live or our food to grow/graze, we are contributing to the heating of the planet. And yet, we are still throwing baby showers? At what point is this going to stop? Shouldn't we be sending gifts and celebrating when someone has a vasectomy?

I had a vasectomy years ago. The environment impact of this decision was not the only one of the reasons why I did it. Economics played a big part of it. Another was that my wife didn't want to have a child. Like everyone else, I have a biological drive to reproduce. But like a lot of our biological drives, we need to put them aside and make logical decisions about our future. This is the basis of civilization ... up to now anyway.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Three Presidents for Two Terms Three Times in a Row

Only once in American history have we had three presidents in a row re-elected for two complete terms for a total of 24 years. Thomas Jefferson was president for two terms from 1801 to 1809. He was succeeded by James Madison who served from 1809 to 1817 and then by James Munroe, 1817 to 1825. This was before we had term Presidential limits.

In 2012, if President Obama is re-elected, this could happen again. Clinton was elected twice and serve two full terms and so did GW Bush (contentious at times but was officially elected). I know at the moment it doesn't seem likely that the President will be re-elected, but here are some things you must consider. Obama's approval rating hovers around 43% right now. This is his lowest approval rating yet, but both Clinton and Reagan had approval ratings that low at this point in their presidency. If you remember both of them were re-elected quite hardily. Here is an awesome web site that you can check these numbers since the Truman administration: Wall Street Journal Presidential approval web site.

One thing to point out the differences between Obama and these other two presidents is that their numbers were going up at this point in their presidency while his is going down. They were also presidents during a time that the economy wasn't as bad as it is now. Even though presidents have little affect on the economy, presidencies do seem to take a hit when it is in the tank. I don't blame GW Bush for the economy crashing (I would really like to but logic prevents me from doing so) and I don't blame Obama for not fixing it. The economy is a wave, mostly private sector generated, and presidencies ride that wave like it or not.

One thing I did notice from this graphic is that those presidents who were re-elected had spikes in their approval rating during the elections. If the first Bush had an election in 1990, he'd have probably won it. I am sure Obama is aware of this. Many of my more liberal friends complain about Obama in that he hasn't tackled some of the slam dunk popular issues of the day. The best example of this is the repealing of Don't Ask/Don't Tell. 70% of Americans approve of the repleaing of this policy and replacing it with a more sober and inclusive policy. Why hasn't he used his political capital and the bully pulpit to push this more? The answer to this is obvious to me: timing. He wanted to do the contentious political moves early in his term: healthcare, financial reform, pulling out of Iraq etc. By the time, he goes up for re-election in 2012, most of Americans will have forgotten about the contentious policies. Many of them will also have seen a doctor for the first time in years by then which will be another plus. The slam dunk issues will come in handy then and I am hoping he will move onto an easy win. I am predicting that you will see a steady spike upward in his Y axis on this Wall Street Journal graph. Especially when you consider the "quality" of the Republican competition forming in the ranks.

I know what you are thinking, what about his party? They have an election in 2010, in almost a month from now. Is he throwing his fellow Democrats to the lions (or the elephants is more appropriate)? Perhaps. The Republicans taking over the House may be a good thing in the long term for the Democrats. It is easy to stand on the side lines and throw stones at leadership. Leadership is what is difficult. After they take over the House, the voters will be reminded at to what a dysfunctional group the GOP is. Regardless of how bad you think Congress has been in the last two years ... wait until some of these Tea Party people get into office. They will get nothing done and neither will Obama ... but the good thing for him is he will have them to blame. Again leadership is difficult. They will have the difficult decisions on their plates. If they vote against the repealing of Don't Ask/Don't Tell, they will have the 70% of the population to contend with.

I know all of this somewhat preposterous. Predicting a presidential election two years in advance is like predicting where a leaf will land after a wind storm. We don't even know if Obama is going to run again. Right? I wouldn't be surprised if he decided not to. We know his wife isn't happy with being the First Lady. I can't blame her, I'd hate the spotlight as well. This alone may be a good enough reason to not run, that and all the death threats. Either way, the political theater couldn't be better.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Religion and Other Scary Things

All religions scare me. A group of people gathering weekly performing chants and singing to/for an invisible being that they believe has awesome power and created the universe ... yes, that scares the shit out of me. This could be added to the long list of things that I just don't get. Why do normally rational people check their rationale at the door of a cathedral? Scary things will always exist ... violence, death, clowns, etc. ... as long as they keep their distance not affecting me and my own, I am okay. I can go on with my life without really caring. But when the scariness spill over out of the walls of the cathedral, I get a concerned.

The scariest of religions to me are not the obscure ones. The Baha'i never bother me. Other than an occasional crappy NYC cabbie, the Sikh don't bother me either. The faiths that are large enough to influence government policy, influence what is taught in our schools, who can legally get married or what woman (aka free tax-paying citizens) can do with their own bodies ... those are the ones that scare me. You know who I am talking about. When I hear of protesters complaining of a mosque being built near Ground Zero and saying that Muslims are taking over our country, I really don't get it. Why should this scare me any more than any other religion having taken over my country? Are the Christians complaining about the Muslims because they don't want the competition?

I am generally tolerant to those that have different beliefs than I. Tolerant meaning that I tolerate them but I don't have to like them or hang around with them. As long as they leave me alone or don't try to impose their beliefs on anyone else, I am okay. We can get along by agreeing to be different. I think this is called freedom. Occasionally I hear stories in the news that make we cringe like this one: Soldiers Pass On Christian Concert; Get Punished: Report. Since soldiers make a vow to defend the Constitution, you think the fact the First Amendment's statute on the freedom of religion might be respected as well. That would only work if we were dealing rational people.

I wish as a child I had learned more about world religions. I grew up as a Catholic in a mostly Catholic town. I knew nothing about other religions. Once I had soured on Catholicism, I was extremely cynical about religion as a whole. It took me decades to voluntarily enter a church again. In Wellesley Massachusetts, the public schools have the right idea in teaching comparative religion as part of their social studies program. The middle school kids learn about world religions as a whole and not favoring one over another. If I had children I would want them to attend a school that addressed religion in this manner. It would allow the child to learn but not have any one idea forced upon them. The idea is learning not indoctrination. This seems to be the rational approach. The class trips in Wellesley include visits to a church, synagogue and even a mosque. Even a rational approach like this is attacked by the crazies in this country. The attacks against the teacher and the school administration are all over the net. We are supposed to be a tolerant nation respecting individual freedoms, but this seems so far from the truth sometimes. Especially when you let the crazies take over the discourse.

Some are striking back, Mike Weinstein is a former JAG officer and White House counsel in the Reagan Administration. He and his foundation, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation has sued the US Air Force Academy and Roberts Gates among others for the imposition of Christianity upon non-Christian military. Weinstein fights for the rights of Jews and Muslim among others in the military as well as for the rights of atheists. You would think in an institution of discipline like the military would actually have some .... umm ... discipline on this matter. Apparently, that is too much to ask in this political environment.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Julia Tuttle Causeway Sex Offender Colony

This is truly one of the most fucked up things I have ever heard. The Julia Tuttle Causeway is a strip of highway in Miami-Dade, Florida that houses approximately 140 sex offenders. They live in a communal shantytown below the highway. Why? Because there is a housing crisis for sex offenders in Miami.

Miami-Dade County laws state that convicted sex offenders cannot live 2500 feet (roughly 1/2 mile) from any school, child care facility or playground. That is the strictest such law in the country. They can't even live near a homeless shelter because of the children that live there. So the colony was created below the Causeway because they have nowhere else to stay. Currently, when a sex offender is release from a Miami-Dade jail, they print a default address of the causeway on it. Some of them have generators, camping showers, pets and makeshift plumbing. They live in tents or cardboard box constructions.

What is even more disturbing is that the law seems to be backfiring. It only requires them to be at their residence from 6pm to 7am each day so some of them actually go to their old homes each day to shower, cook, eat, watch TV with the family, use the net etc. If the law was less restrictive, they could actually get an apartment and carry on a more normal life. Obviously, these folks have some serious problems to deal with. Further isolating them into their own ghetto seems more likely to alienate them than to help them assimilate.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Perseids

When Beth and I were living in Boston, we were broke. The most economical vacation there is a camping trip. Note to future couples: when getting married consider a gift registry at a camping store. Our wedding gifts (lantern, cooking stove, collapsible water jug etc.) came in very handy. For us, the weekend meant to a road trip to the White Mountains or to Mt. Greylocke in the Berkshires. Vacations meant the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, Acadia National Park or Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. These were were great vacations. They had down time, alone time, great books, scenery and memories galore.

Camping in mid-August was a requirement. We needed to be away from the light pollution of the big city so that we could view Perseid's meteor showers in north end of the sky sans telescope. A cloudy weekend was a tragedy. A clear weekend, a victory for geekdom. Now that we live in Vermont, it is only a matter of pulling out a blanket, turning off all the lights and going out in the yard. Our local public radio station throws a star party just for this occasion. Peak time was over last night but you can still catch some if you are patient. I suggest watching the skies tonight, if you are the northern hemisphere, and listen to this show if you can, just follow the link.

Perseid is named for the constellation, Perseus, which it appears near in the sky. It is nowhere near these stars, obviously, because it is passing close to the Earth. The meteors that we see are only tiny stones that are the remnants from a huge comet, the Swift-Tuttle. Some of the meteors, also called shooting stars by some, are as small as sand pebbles on the beach. It is hard to believe something so small can be seen from six miles away on the Earth. When it enters the atmosphere it burns up. We are seeing that burning explosion of gases.

Swift-Tuttle was named for two astronomers that first identified the comet separately in 1862, Americans Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. They identified it, independently, three days apart. Pisser that they had to share the naming rights. It is an estimated to be close to 17 miles across and almost twice as large as the comet that we believe contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. This is one bad-ass comet.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rangers' Financial Woes

Does it surprise you that a baseball team that was once run by this man is now filing for bankruptcy?

Not only are the Texas Rangers in financial dire straits but this man couldn't even make money when he ran oil companies (Arbusto Energy and Spectrum 7 Energy Corp). It is obvious that he brought his "business sense" to his presidency. As president of the US he started two foreighn wars but neglected to come up with any reasonable way to pay for them. Our first MBA president ran our country the same way he ran his businesses, by increasing spending even though revenues were decreasing. The big difference here is that the decreased revenues for our government was his own making by cutting the taxes of the wealthy. This is old news.

The financial problems of the Texas Rangers are not new either. Some of the decisions that were made back in the 1990's are really hurting them now. A lot of the team's fans blame the current leadership of the franchise (sound familiar?) but a lot of it can be traced back to the 1990's.

For example, they are still paying Mickey Tettleton $1.4 million a year. Who is Tettleton? He is an average player that retired in 1997. Paying a player into their retirement isn't that odd. What is odd is that the Rangers gave him this contract in 1996 when he was 36 which pretty old for a baseball player. If he were a knuckleballer, it might make sense, but he's a catcher. Paying an aging catcher $1.4 million for the next 13 years ... what were you thinking? This is just poor business. Sounds like whoever made this decision might be stupid enough to give one of his golf buddies a job as head of FEMA!

I am not a big fan of the Texas Rangers, but they are one of those underdog teams that I do like to see win. Filing for Chapter 11 may make them more appealing to potential buyers (Nolan Ryan is one that I have heard). Their top unsecured debtors had to be made public. The top six are all players:

Alex Rodriguez – $24.8 million
Kevin Millwood – $12.9 million
Michael Young – $3.8 million
Vicente Padilla - $1.6 million
Mickey Tettleton – $1.4 million
Mark McLemore – $970K

The top four of these are current players, only one of which is currently on the Rangers (Young). The highest on the list, is New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez. ARod is suing to stop the bankruptcy. This might just be the only thing that Bush has ever do that makes me happy. ARod
could lose close to $25 million if it happens.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


I like magician Penn Jillette mainly because he is an outspoken atheist. In a nation where many people equate atheism with evil, he is refreshing. He puts a positive face on my belief system (or lack thereof). One day a few years ago, Jillette was going back stage after finishing a performance and was greeted by his mother. She approached him and he didn't know who she was. This is because he has a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia (or more common called face blindness).

People with prosopagnosia cannot recognize faces so if they see someone out of context, like seeing your mom backstage and not at home, they don't recognize them. They might not even recognize you if your facial expression changed. The condition was originally diagnosed in people who had brain damage thought to be caused by head trauma. Very recently a congenital form has been diagnosed. Some estimates are as high as 2.5% of the population. In other terms, if 200 of your Facebook friends were all in the same room, those 5 people who haven't said "hi" may not be rude. They may just have prosopagnosia. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, anthropologist Jane Goodall and ironically, portrait painter Chuck Close all have prosopagnosia.

When I was a kid I watched a lot of television with my dad. Just about every black man he saw on television that he didn't know he would say "Is that the guy from Barney Miller?" and "I'd say, Ron Glass? No, that's not him, it doesn't even look like him." To my knowledge my dad doesn't have prosopagnosia, but he could just be displaying own-race bias. We are simply far more likely to recognize people of our own race over others. The old comment, "they all look a like to me," might just have some legs to it. This is something to ponder if you are ever on a jury and someone from another race is being identified.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Radius Clause and Lollapalooza

A radius clause is an agreement that business signs where they agree not to open another branch in a given area. It is most commonly used with anchor stores in malls. For example, if Target is the anchor store, they sign an agreement that they will not open another store close to that mall. The radius is usually a short distance from the mall in that potential customers will not be drawn away from the mall with the Target but into the mall with the Target (hence the phrase anchor store).

This makes a lot of sense to me when it comes to retail which are generally stationary and have some staying power. It does not make so much sense when it comes to concert promotion. A lot of the big Summer concert festivals have their artist sign a radius clause. The artist agrees that they will not perform anywhere else near the festivals for a given amount of time. The largest radius in the industry is the 300 square mile for 90 days clause for the performers at Lollapalooza. So if you are a fan of Green Day or The Strokes and you live within the 300 mile radius of Grant Park, Chicago, you better see them at Lollapalooza or not see them at all.

For extremely popular bands like Green Day, this isn't huge deal, but for the 100 or so lesser known bands like Alberta Cross, Metric, Deer Tick or The Cold War Kids (some of my favorites) this is a big deal. Not only for the bands, but for the small clubs that attract these bands. 300 square miles is huge. This means that these bands cannot perform in Madison, Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis and whatever ever market 300 square miles encompasses. This means slim pickings for the Midwest during the Summer concert season.

The Illinois Attorney General is investigating Lollapalooza for possible anti-trust issues. I will be following this. I don't live in the Midwest, but I could imagine what would happen to a town like Burlington VT (near my home) if a huge festival came to NYC, Boston or Montreal and had a radius clause like this one. Our concert scene and our economy would be hurt along with every other little town in New England.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mountain Pine Beetle

While visiting the Canadian Rockies recently, I noticed large bald spots on mountaintops many of which were several acres in size. Since I have visited the area in the past, I assumed it was simply clear cutting (non-environmental friendly logging) and I didn't give it much thought. Later in the week, while I was on the white water raft ride, I noticed that these areas were not clear cut because the trees were not gone but were just very thin, many of them dead or dying. This is the work of the mountain pine beetle.

The mountain pine beetle is not only a problem in Alberta and British Columbia but in the American Rockies as well. Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho all have similar problems. The beetle is not an invasive species, it is native to North America. It's population has gone out of control because, historically, it tends to breed heavily in warm years and not so heavily in cool years. Since this past decade has been the warmest on record, the population is completely out of control and it's predators can't keep up with them. Their population is usually controlled by cold weather. Since trees are our planet's greatest source of cooling this is very disturbing news. It seems like cycle that has no chance of stopping.

Nothing in nature happens in a vacuum. Other species are always affected by another's growth. Clark’s nutcracker is a bird that lives off of the white bark pine, the type of tree that is being most devastated by the beetle. The nutcracker's relationship with this tree is a symbiotic one. The bird feeds on the cones thus spreads the seeds. When the trees die, so do they. The whitebark pine relies on the nutcracker even more for if not for this bird, the seeds would not be spread throughout the landscape. If the bird dies off so will the tree.

The squirrels and chipmunks in the area also feed off of the cones. They store them in ground caches. These caches are the main source of food for black bears and grizzlies. Since the recent Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak, grizzly attacks on humans are up because bears are going elsewhere seeking out food. When a bear attacks a human, they are destroyed. Just another casualty of global warming.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rule 8.06

If you were watching the LA Dodgers / SF Giants game a couple of nights ago you were treated to a baseball rulebook gem. In the ninth inning with one out, bases loaded and Dodgers winning 5-4, hitting coach Don Mattingly went to the mound to visit All Star closing relief pitcher John Braxton. Mattingly was acting as the manager because Joe Torre, the Dodgers manager, had been ejected earlier in the game. After advising his pitcher, who wasn't pitching very well, Mattingly stepped off the mound and headed back to the dugout.

This sounds pretty normal at this point. On the way back to the dugout, the Dodgers' first baseman, Jamie Loney, called out to Mattingly. Mattingly stopped and walked toward first base stepping on the mound again and had a quick conversation with his player. The San Francisco manager, Bruce Bochy, protested calling this a double trip to the mound. The umpire, Tim Kurkjian, called rule 8.06 of MLB rule book.

Here is the rule:
In a case where a manager has made his first trip to the mound and then returns the second time to the mound in the same inning with the same pitcher in the game and the same batter at bat, after being warned by the umpire that he cannot return to the mound, the manager shall be removed from the game and the pitcher required to pitch to the batter until he is retired or gets on base. After the batter is retired, or becomes a base runner, then this pitcher must be removed from the game. The manager should be notified that his pitcher will be removed from the game after he pitches to one hitter, so he can have a substitute pitcher warmed up.

A Dodgers relief pitcher, struggling and about to be sent back the minors George Sherrill, was immediately brought in to save the game. He was given his obligatory 8 warm up pitches before the game would resume. Sherrill gives up a 2 run double and the Dodgers lose.

The problem is not so much the obscurity of the rule is that the umpire and the Dodger's manager didn't know enough about the rule that they didn't catch that Broxton should have been able to (even forced to) finish pitching to the batter (Andres Torres) that he had already started pitching to. The spirit of the rule was to prevent managers from stalling giving their bullpen more time to warm up. If Broxton finished to this one batter, not only might he have gotten the batter out but Sherrill might have had time to warm up properly. Not only is a bad year for umpiring, but Mattingly might want to forget trying to get a job as a manager any time soon. He should have known the rule. It is clear that the SF manager, Bochy, knew it better than both of them.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Jefferson Bible

I love hearing stories about the American founding fathers. They are some of the most interesting people in history. I can't imagine any of them existing in our current political environment. Most of them would be considered eccentrics, on the fringe of political life, possible not in political life at all. The story I heard today of the Jefferson Bible is a perfect example.

Like Washington and Franklin, Jefferson was a deist. He basically believed that God created the universe but did nothing in the way of intervening with humanity. He respected the teachings of Jesus but only saw him as a prophet and a philosopher but not divine. He didn't believe in the trinity. He believed much of supernatural events in the Bible were added to attract the pagans to Christianity. So he attempted to rewrite the Bible from a deist point of view. He took a razor to his copy of the King James Bible and cut out all the supernatural events in the New Testament. He also put all the events chronological order. He begins with the birth of Jesus (hold the angels) in Luke 2 and Luke 3, then follows with Mark 1 and Matthew 3 etc. No miracles. No son of God.

Can you imagine a modern US politician doing anything like? His/her career would be over the moment they took the razor blade to the book. It wasn't published until after his death, but it was no secret what he was doing during his lifetime.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Boss is Dead

I have a soft spot for historical figures that did the right thing, against all odds, and succeeded. The easiest place to see it, for me, is in baseball. I am not going to compare George Steinbrenner to Rosa Parks ... comparing him to Branch Rickey might be more palatable.

Branch Rickey was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers when he recruited the great Jackie Robinson to be the first player to cross the color line. Because he did so Dodgers were great for many years later not only because they had Jackie Robinson but other black players that other teams (like the Cubs and the Red Sox) would not go near. The Cubs and the Red Sox were two of the last teams to integrate and their records in the 50's and 60's show it. They excluded themselves from a pool of great players and suffered for it. I say this as a lifelong Red Sox fan. The history of my team would be very different if the owners in the mid-20th century were not so darn racist. We celebrate Branch and Jackie for their courage to challenge something that was wrong and they succeeded in making a great thing, Major League Baseball, even greater.

To a lesser extent, Steinbrenner did the same thing as the owner of the Yankees. In the 1970's MLB was still shaken up by free agency. Where players were once beholden to teams for the length of their careers, they now had control over what team they played for after their contracts expired. Most Major League owners rejected free agency. Steinbrenner saw it as an opportunity and used the power of his very big purse to sign (aka steal) Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter from the A's. They have been stocking their team with free agents ever since. After seeing the Yankees winning the World Series in '77 and '78, other teams followed suit and embraced free agency. Many baseball fans like myself find free agency to be a necessary evil to the game. Prior to free agency, players were thought of as highly paid slaves (a commodity being sold) whose lives were at the mercy of the owners and MLB executives. Now many players (the people who actually do the work) are paid more than the executives. Little is done with their lives without their say in the matter.

I cannot say that I am a fan of Steinbrenner, after all he was a Yankee. He was a fairly despicable person. He was once banned from baseball for paying a gambler $40k to dig up "dirt" on Dave Winfield during a contract dispute. In 1974 he pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign, and to a felony charge of obstruction of justice. He actually reminds me of Nixon in that in his death, people come out of the woodwork to say nice things about him where days before he was openly disdained. The NY Post dedicated 43 pages to him in yesterday's edition.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Kevin Youkilis' film career

As a life long Red Sox fan I was surprised to learn something new about one favorite players. Kevin Youkilis, the Greek God of Walks, was in the Melanie Griffith film Milk Money when he was 14 years old. In the link, you will see young Kevin off to the right, the bully, collecting lunch money. It was filmed in his home town of Cincinnati. I am not sure how he got the part but you can definitely tell it is him. I have never seen the film. I just added it to my Netflix queue.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Jane Austen

I like to read a classic of literature at least once a year. June is the month that I usually do this mostly because I tend to have vacation time in June and a good book is a requirement. I remember once, when I was a young adult, having very little money just taking off with a copy of Dicken's Hard Times and reading it in my tent, in a youth hostel in Ludlow Vermont and then Montreal. I remember being lonely and broke but having a great vacation nonetheless.

Tomorrow is the first day of June and I just read the introduction to Pride and Prejudice and I couldn't be more excited to start a book. A few months ago I posted the question to friends whether to read it. The guys said to skip Jane Austen and all my woman friends responded with an emphatic Yes. For this reason alone, I am curious. It couldn't be more cut and dry on the gender appeal. I tend to like classics for the language more than the plot. Austen is less famous for her use of language and more so for her character development. I already know the story of this novel from seeing several film versions so I hope to pay close attention to how she uses character to drive the plot. Some of my favorite books are written by women (Wuthering Heights, Beloved and The Fountainhead) so I tend to think that I will not agree with the guys on this one.

Jane Austen's first novel was Pride and Prejudice but was not the first to be published. She finished it when she was only 21 years old. When her father read the manuscript, he immediately brought it to a publish and it was immediately returned. She later published Sense and Sensibility then Pride and Prejudice published afterwards. Neither book bore her name. The first said "by a lady." The second simply said "by the same author as Sense and Sensibility." It wasn't until after her death in 1817 that her name actually appeared on her books when Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


People have been invoking Hitler so often these days that it is difficult to take any of it seriously. Someone drawing a Hitler mustaches on portraits of Obama protesting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) ... what's that all about? So if you are against something and if Hitler did anything like it regardless of the reason or scope ... you can compare that person to Hitler? Really? Hitler pulled Germany out of a recession, modernized their highways and advanced women's rights (some woman obviously). So if Obama does any of these things ... are we going to compare him to Hitler? Mind-boggling really! We can blow this nonsense off pretty easily, but it does desensitize us a bit. When I heard about the new Arizona law, SB1070, the first thing I thought of was all those WW II films I've seen where the SS officer commands "Show me your papers." Comparing the Arizona Senate and Republican Governor to Hitler would be really handy right now, but since all those crazies have been doing it to Obama for the past couple of years, it really isn't going to have the same affect.

We really need a new boogie man. Stalin would do for this situation. If only he had a funny mustache. Actually, the USSR is good comparison to the new Arizona "show me your papers" law. Many of us are old enough to remember the Soviet Union and know people who visited before the wall came down. I know and have read a number of people who have described the terror of people asked for their papers while backpacking in Russia, while doing the touristy things in Moscow, while visiting Red Square. Remember when we used to say, so glad I don't live in that type of country. Why haven't I seen any images of Governor Jan Brewer compared to Hitler or called a communist? umm, wait a minute. Quick google and youtube search ... man, they are out there. Gotta love the net!

SB1070, as July 28th, 2010, makes it a misdemeanor to be in Arizona without legal documents. Any officer of the law can ask for your papers if they have reasonable suspicion of your legal status. A valid driver's license is good example of such papers. So if you are on vacation and driving around with a rent-a-car with some friends heading out to the Grand Canyon and you have a headlight burned out, you can be pulled over by the police and asked for your papers. Not just the driver but everyone in the car including the kids. If they don't have the papers, they and you (as the driver) can be put in jail until you produce the appropriate papers. You as the driver would be under suspicion of transporting aliens. What is reasonable suspicion? That is subjective. I am a white guy and I don't tan well so I am probably safe. Not so sure about my friends. The state would pay for the jail time, I believe, but not for the frustration, all lost time at work or anything else that you may incur.

As a white person, non-Arizonan, who lives near the Canadian border (not Mexico), you could say that this doesn't have an effect on my life and I don't really know what is going on down there. This is a valid point. The only fear we have here of Canadians is if too many of them come down, they may cause a lot of car accidents from turning left from the right lane. Also, we could have a french fry problem ... "no, I did not order gravy and bean curd on my fries!" But I work for a New York City office and I have a lot of brown friends and co-workers. Laws don't get passed in vacuums and have a tendency to creep. If it happens in Arizona, it could happen elsewhere. Precedents get set. If you complain only about injustice when it happens to you directly, you will find that you are alone when you are trodden upon. So yes, there are a lot of situations in life where you are asked to present an ID, like the doctor's office or the DMV, but you are not thrown in jail if you don't have them there and everyone has to present the document, not those under "suspicion." "Reasonable suspicion" is a euphemism for a lot of distasteful things that I don't have the time or space to address here. A few years ago, I was pulled over in Brookline Mass so some bogus reason that I cannot even remember. Cops in Brookline pull over cars of people who don't seem like they can afford to live in Brookline. So I understand what "reasonable suspicion" means from personal experience. Rich people, particularly, rich white won't get bothered.

Here is some data that might put some of this in perspective. A quarter of all Major League Baseball players are foreign born. Of those that are foreign born, an over-whelming majority are from Latin countries. Half of them are on National Teams that have to visit Arizona several times a year and half of them are on teams that have Spring training in the Cactus League. Already problems have arisen where some players are saying that they will not play in Arizona. A lot of players like to bring their families along on road trips. Their contracts will not allow them to refuse to play but they can stop bringing their families with them. The 2011 All Star game is scheduled in Arizona, the players union has already petitioned Commissioner Selig to have it moved. I stand by them just like I stand by the Cubs fans who petitioned outside of Wrigley last week when the Diamondbacks were in town. If they don't listen to reason, they will listen the empty twang of a purse string. I was planning on a trip to Arizona to see the Cubs for Spring training next March, but perhaps, I will go to Florida to see the Sox.

The crime stats that I keep seeing, from right wingers, are very suspicious. They are saying that Arizonans are not safe. I don't really trust politically charged crime stats ... like I wouldn't trust the crime stats that came out of the Jim Crow South either. Politically, this whole thing doesn't make sense to me. They might get some short-term political gain out of this, but long term one has to really scratch your head. One tenth of all American ten year olds, right now, are of Hispanic origins along with one quarter of all two year olds (numbers that are pale in comparison to the German American influx of the 19th century). Probably not a good idea to alienate this crowd. I wouldn't expect this law to last very long nor to help the situation (economics, crime or politics) whatsoever. Just a very bad idea.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hamlet's Eulogy

I put my best friend down this week. He was quite active most of his life, even his last, his 18th. According to the chart in the waiting room at the vet, an 18 year old cat is in the geriatric stage of his life. He was 88 in human years, yet he’d still play with string or chase a light beam across the floor. When he was a kitten, I discovered that he’d play fetch. You could take a small piece of paper, crinkle it, his face would light up and then he’d chase it after thrown … he’d jump, pick up the ball with his mouth and bring it right back. I didn’t teach him this, he just did it one day to my surprise. We had been doing this together for almost two decades, since I was in my twenties. He was the best companion you could have expect from a dumb little cat. This week, I paid a man to inject chemicals into him that would cause him to exit this mortal coil in a humane fashion. I cannot help but hate myself a little even though I know it was the right thing to end his suffering. I have survivors guilt, it seems.

In 1992, I had been living in the Boston area for about a year. I had moved to Boston not only to start a new life but to get away from the old one. Like many Americans, like Gatsby, I had a plan to reinvent myself and a big vibrant city is a fine place to accomplish this task. I did not plan on the loneliness. I became a Big Brother and one day, I decided to get a cat at the Dedham Animal Rescue League. I let my little brother, Angel, pick the cat. He chose the one that was meowing the loudest, a white domestic short hair with some patches of gray and brown. I had always wanted a cat named Hamlet due to the neurotic nature of the Dane. He had been found in a Burger King dumpster by a BK employee and brought to the shelter so he always had a link to royalty. He not only gave me companionship but he gave me someone to come home to and someone to be responsible for. It gave me a strength from a source that I didn’t expect. It allowed me to stop concentrating on myself for a little each day. The moment I brought him home was probably the moment I started to grow up.

In the 18 years I had him, he had moved with me many times from Dedham to Brighton to Watertown to Concord to Roslindale to Burlington Vermont then to my first house in Monkton and now to Westford where he lies in a grave in my yard. He was always an outdoor cat. I have never believed in keeping cats captive inside. I find it amazing that he died of his kidneys failing and not getting hit by a car or eaten by a predator. He never really went far from the house. The furthest he ever went here in Westford is when he went out to the mail box with me. He’d follow me to the road and then follow me back. This is just one of the events I do each day in which I miss him now. When I am not thinking about him, I see a white spot off the corner of my eye and I think it is him. I feel him at my feet when I am sleeping and expect to awaken with him on my chest. When I work with my laptop, on my deck, I swear I can always hear him. Disappointment, a sense of loss, grief … it is daily now. My fondest memory of Hamlet’s adventures outside is one day, when I lived in Brighton, I stepped off the bus on my commute home and walked through the parking lot behind the Dunkin’ Donuts. As I approached I saw a big group of pigeons walking around in a big circles. “What is happening here?” I asked myself. I walked a bit further to see some donut pieces lying on the pavement “Why are the pigeons not eating the donuts?” I walked further to see the entire circle of pigeons with Hamlet in the middle of the circle watching. It was quite funny. He was like a lion, the king of the beast, on the serengeti. He was that beautiful.

In the spirit of this Blog, what I learned today (not just today but this week) is what a true sense of loss is. You could consider me lucky in that in my middle age, this is the first time I feel a sense of loss due to the death of a loved one. I know it sounds impossible. My grandparents died when I was very young. My mother’s death lasted a decade in which she suffered from a stroke. We lost her in steps which made the grieving experience less sudden. The long time allowed for gradual healing. You could also say one of the reasons why I haven’t lost anyone close to me because I don’t have many people in my life I am very close to. I am closer to my pets than I am to most people. When I was a kid, I asked for a puppy every Christmas. If they had only known that they could returned all my toys for just one pet that I could call my own. It wasn’t until I was older and had my own place that I could actually have a pet of my own. It has been almost a week and I have already gotten into the habit of going for a walk to his grave with one of my dogs each morning. It is a nice little spot at the top of a hill with a pile of rocks scattered with wildflower seeds. I have never understood until now why anyone would visit a grave. It is just a way to keep someone you miss in your life, however faint. Life is cruel and we cling to those that make it less so however unfulfilling that pile of rocks is.

Monday, April 19, 2010

London Calling

The debate goes on. Some say it is "Exile On Main Street," some say "Dark Side of the Moon" while others say it is "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Blonde on Blonde" or "The Joshua Tree." Does it really matter what the greatest rock n' roll album is? I have heard some say that it is The Clash's 1979 double album "London Calling" ... I now understand a little more why it is so highly respected.

The creative force behind The Clash was Joe Strummer (lyrics) and Mick Jones (music), the Lennon & McCarty of the band. The sessions started in a garage with no ideas and nothing written down. They spent the first days playing around with standards ... jamming to Bo Diddley, Dylan and Elvis tunes. Bassist Paul Simonon just hung out listening to reggae, his most recent obsession, on headphones. They came up with the original title of the album, "The Last Testament," which set in motion what they wanted to do. They were a bunch of socialists that thought punk was dead, and with Margaret Thatcher's recent election, they weren't too happy about the state of affairs in the world. They wanted to make one last hurray for punk knowing that they were probably done. It is a not a pure punk album with obvious pop, ska, soul, jazz, rockabilly and reggae influences. Their homage to rock n' roll's past is obvious by the cover of the album where they mimicked Elvis's debut self-titled album. Is this an end or a new beginning?

The recording sessions started with one producer, Guy Stevens, who's approach seems insane. He wanted them emotionally on edge always running high. He'd do unpredictable things like start screaming and throw folding chairs at them while they were playing. He was an old-time rocker. He was the person who named the band, Mott the Hoople. He also worked with Free, Spooky Tooth, The Who and The Stones (not too shabby). But some thought he had just lost his mind by the time he worked with The Clash. They couldn't deal with him anymore and fired him midway. They hired one of their sound engineers, Bill Price, to finish production of the album. Stevens overdosed on prescription drugs just a few years later.

The songs on "London Calling" tackled all the hot button issues of the day including drug use, racial conflict, nuclear power, war, idealism versus realism, responsibilities of adults and unemployment. Where punk's strength is usually in attitude over substance or musicianship, this incarnation of the The Clash had it all with all four musicians being at the top of their game. Until "London Calling" punk received little airplay. They bridged the gap between the punk world and mainstream rock without really selling-out. People were pretty desperate for something new at the time this was released. The power rock ballads were getting lamer and lamer each year. You could call it the first neo-punk album leading the way for such bands like Green Day, The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Killers, The Strokes and The Offspring among others. When you listen to this album you don't think of 1979 ... you think of all the great stuff that it inspired in the decades to follow.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Revolt of the Haves

I heard Jack Beatty today on NPR's On Point refer to the Tea Party Movement as a Revolt of the Haves. This is a reference to a book of the same name by Robert Kuttner which is about California's Proposition 13. Mid-20th century California was a social democracy with high property taxes and school expenditures funded by a flourishing defense industry which employed a new influx of immigrants from Asia. All of this changed in 1978 when Prop 13 passed which not only capped the property tax rate at 1% but required a 2/3 majority in the state legislature to change. This changed the make-up of the state for decades to come. You can debate this yourself whether it was a good thing or not. Some say that it killed the real estate market, crashed the schools and lead to their current financial woes giving Governor Schwarzenegger few options in resolving the problem. Others say that it introduced stability into their economy making the boom in Silcon Valley possible. Since I am not and have never been a Califlornia resident, I will let them battle over this one.

Beatty called the Tea Part Movement a "Revolt of the Haves" in reference to a recent poll published in the New York Times that identified the demographics of the Tea Party members. The Tea Baggers are largely white, middle class and well educated aka the Haves. Part of me does identify with what the Tea Baggers claim they stand for and I guess that makes sense because I meet their demographic perfectly. I am a little sick of paying taxes and not seeming to get a lot for it in return. If only I could pay taxes only for those programs I do support. If that were the case, none of my money would have gone toward the war in Iraq for example and perhaps would go into Pell Grants to assist working class people paying for college. But as educated members of a democracy we know this cannot happen. We elect representatives that are supposed to bring our values and concerns to light and they make the difficult choices for us. When things don't turn our way, we have to realize that sometimes our values don't win and we learn to live with the circumstances. When we lose, we don't freak out and start calling the President "Hitler" or a "socialist," but I guess apparently some of us do.

I am mostly annoyed with these people. We pay the lowest taxes in the industrialized world and we have, mostly, a safe, clean and productive society that is governed by law not by the cult of personality or grabs for power. We are a just nation and we attempt to make it more so everyday. These folks, the Baggers, have more than most people on the planet. Most of our taxes go (have gone) toward supporting their white middle class lives while little in the past have gone towards the disenfranchised. Should they be frustrated? Surely, but my empathy stops when I analyzed the situation closely knowing that our nation is aging, our economy needs regulating and the planet is in need ... these challenges require government like it or not. And government's only revenue stream is taxes.

I have worked very hard for what I have. When I have to dig into my pocket (which is not bottomless) and give to those who seem to think that they are owed my hard earned cash ... it is indeed maddening. I grew up in a working class town. I worked my way through college working up to three jobs some times to pay for my tuition, books and living expenses. It took me seven years to obtain my Bachelors degree ... long term goals over short term satisfaction was my mantra. While I was doing this, there were so many people that I knew (friends, neighbors, relatives) that didn't bother pursuing an education. It was difficult knowing these folks while they partied and gave no thought to the greater world nor to their future while I had to bog down go to work, go to school at night and then do homework on weekends. Twenty years later, now that I am moderately successful, I am reluctant to assist those who don't attempt to help themselves. I am a Have now but I feel that I have earned it. I don't know many Have's who don't feel the same.

Like I said, I understand the anger. What I don't understand is how they allow their anger to cloud their judgment. For example, I pay high property taxes to pay for a school in my town that I don't use since I have no children. If I didn't think about this situation very closely, it would anger me to no end, but when I consider the cost of not publicly educating children (poor economy in the future, high crime, high cost of prisons, low real estate values etc.) ... the decision is obvious. I will pay high taxes now to obtain positive long term goals. Same could be said about health care costs. I'd rather pay taxes to support health insurance for the poor now rather than pay for their care or lack thereof in the future when it is more expensive. You spend now as a form of preventative care for the future. I consider my taxes as an investment in the US's long term health. It is not always spent wisely, but we learn, review and attempt again. It is spectacular how successful we are actually.

I have a hard time taking the Tea Baggers seriously. They call our freely and fairly elected President asinine names like "Hitler" and "socialist" and when the media turns it back on them, they claim that the media is unfair and snarky. You can't have it both ways. They seem way too much like the bully whining when the neighborhood dork gets a new BB gun. You can't reap two centuries of supremacy and then claim tyranny when you have to pull into your wallet just a little deeper. I find it hard to take the Tea Baggers as anything more than a bunch of selfish jerks whose patriotism is only as deep as the grass on their suburb lawns. They dare to compare themselves to the American colonists who braved the barrels of real tyranny under King George. Revolt of the Haves, okay, but more like the Haves are Revolting.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Physicist Hugh Everett and the Eels

I have referred to myself, in past Blog entries, as being a music-head or rockologist as I was described in my youth. I used to read everything I could find about rock music. Rarely was I ever surprised to learn something new about rock music because I thought I knew it all. Now that I am older with other obsessions, it happens to me a lot. For example, a few months ago I learned that Norah Jones is the daughter of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. She was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar. Who knew? I didn't. During my college years I used to listen to Shankar's Live in Monterey quite altered. I never would have thought his daughter would become a pop superstar ... but I guess it makes sense. At least they are both musicians. It is not everyday that you find out that one of your favorite musicians is the son of a famous physicist.

As a kid, I really did get engrossed in music. If I were young today, I think I'd be very happy because the rock and roll today is not only better than what I grew up to but more accessible. I have no doubt I'd be a file sharing nut because I had no money. Free music is so easy to find today legal or otherwise.

The Eels is one of my favorite newish bands. The lead singer, songwriter, guitarist, keyboardist and sometime drummer of the band, Mark Everett aka E, is also the son of the famous physicist Hugh Everett III. For the non-geeks among us, Hugh Everett is the physicist who theorized the possibility of alternative universes aka many-worlds interpretation. You can't watch your television for very long without bumping into this theory: Star Trek, Fringe, Superman, Space 1999 etc. SciFi writers just love this theory. In it every event is a quantum branch point that causes a new string of quantum reality ... hence in everything you do or in every decision you act on, a new reality is born. I shouldn't really go on much more about this because I am sure I will butcher it. Mark Everett talks about how his dad was the typical bad-family-man-great-physicist like Einstein. This is going to make me interpret his lyrics very differently now.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Alex Chilton Is Dead

When I was in college, one of the more prevalent songs on the radio was "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements. It was the first time I ever heard the name and I had no idea who Alex Chilton was. Later I learned that Alex was the lead singer of an incredibly influential band, Big Star, in the 1970's that influenced a lot of the power pop bands of the 80's like The Replacements, REM and The Posies. Big Star was the type of band that didn't have any big hits but gained critical appeal and had some very dedicated fans. I have listened to Big Star a number of times and I can't say that I find the appeal. Chilton was scheduled to play today in a reunion concert at this year's South By Southwest Festival in Austin. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack three days ago in a New Orleans hospital.

Today I learned that Alex was also the lead singer of The Box Tops and at age sixteen sang the 1967 number one hit "The Letter." You might also know it by the awesome cover that Joe Cocker did of it in 1970.

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane,
Ain't got time to take a fast train.
Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home,
'Cause my baby just a-wrote me a letter.

Ya, that song. This is an awesome song and it doesn't sound like a sixteen year old kid singing it. The Box Tops (named The Devilles before Alex joined the band), a Memphis band, apparently heard about his popular vocal performance at a high school talent show and asked him to join the band. They had three top 40 hits, but "The Letter" is the most famous.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lunatic Fringe and Al Smith

The lunatic fringe seems to have taken over American politics. The Tea Baggers protest comparing the US president to mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin because he wants to spend healthcare to those who need it. We have other nuts saying that he is a Muslim or a terroist or even a foreigner. Now that the healthcare bill has passed, we have Democratic Senators and Reps (aka people dedicating their lives to service to this country) getting death threats because they voted for the bill. This is crazy stuff but it is no different than any other era in US history. In the 1990's we had the militia movement, in the 1890's we had people who feared that the free masons were taking over and we have had over 100 years of irrational anti-Catholism in American politics. I have often heard about how many Americans feared John F. Kennedy because of his Catholism, but I had never heard of Alfred E. Smith until today. I grew up Catholic so much of this is foreign to me. I have been a confessed atheist for almost three decades now. I don't fear Catholism anymore than any other religion. I fear them all equally.

Al Smith was the first Catholic in the US to ever run for President for a major party. He was the 42nd Governor of New York and he lost his presidential bid to Herbert Hoover in 1928. He only took Massachusetts and Rhode Island mostly due to their highly Catholic population. He lost miserably but you could say that he paved the way for Kennedy. The term "tunnel to Rome" came out of the Smith election. This was a hyperbolic term that was spread by his opponent making people fear that he would take advice and/or commands from the Pope because he was Catholic. But others took it literally believing that he wanted to build a tunnel under the White House leading to Rome. This sounds ridiculous today but no more than Obama being compared to Hitler because of his taking the lead on healthcare.

Considering how bad a president Hoover was, one has to wonder how different the 1930's would have been if Smith had been elected. The little amount of reading I have done today says that his election helped for the base of FDR's support and the beginning of the New Deal. After losing the election Smith went into the private sector and was one of the people behind getting the Empire State Building built in Manhattan.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The US Census

Like a lot of people I was a little annoyed a couple of weeks ago when I received a letter from the US Census Bureau just to inform me that a week later, I'd be receiving the actually census. Swearing ensued ... "don't we have a fucking debt?" Blah, blah. I went off and so did much of my friends. But according to Gary Locke, the current Secretary of Commerce, that letter saves the US government a lot of money. Apparently, that letter improves the amount of census returns we get. If a household doesn't return the census, the US government will send someone to the house which is a lot more expensive than a letter.

Most of the questions on the current census form were written by James Madison, our fourth president, while he was a member of George Washington's administration. Two questions from the original form were removed: Are you the head of household? How many slaves do you own? Very little has been added. When were we finished filling out of our form, we were surprised that it was so short. Most of the changes added to the form have been added for clarity.

The data collected from the census is not only to determine the districting and proportioning for the House of Representatives but also for local and state governments as well.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hypochondria and Creativity

I have a friend that has hypochondria, at least, I think he does. I have known him since I was a child and he seems to have a new malady every time I talk to him. Since he is still alive and appears quite healthy, the thought that he is a hypochondriac has occurred to me. He is also one of the most successful people I know from my old neighborhood ... he's no genius, probably above average intellectually and is very driven. I have never heard of a link between hypochondria and creativity before, until today, but it does makes a lot of sense.

I heard Brian Dillon talk on a podcast today about his new book The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Souls. In this book he discusses nine reasonably famous people who were considered hypochondriacs. Among them are Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Glenn Gould, Marcel Proust, Andy Warhol and three people I never heard of Alice James, James Boswell and Daniel Paul Schreber. I haven't read the book, but in the conversation the most interesting person he discussed was Charles Darwin.

Apparently, Darwin was sickly even as a boy. It is hard to say how much of this was real illness and what wasn't. The captain of the HMS Beagle, (Robert FitzRoy) almost didn't allow him on the voyage to the Galapagos Islands due to his poor constitution. History would be quite different if he hadn't. While on the journey, Darwin only worked two hours a day and spent the rest of the day nursing his woes. He complained about pain in his hands, was obsessed with his nose and had stomach problems. Throughout Darwin's personal diary he keeps track of his flatulence and kept a privy in his study. I will have a completely different picture in my mind now when I see a Darwin fish on people's bumpers.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Text Books

Text books are fertile battlegrounds for the culture wars. Some might even suggest that they are America's culture wars' birthplace. How a science text presents Darwin ... how a history text refers to each of the opposing sides in the American Civil War ... or what context literature is discussed .... are all important issues when choosing a text book for a child's education. The most famous of these battles is probably the violence that occurred in Kanawha County, West Virginia in the early 70's. Kanawha was a very isolated community that was importing much of their teachers from other places in the country and the world. The choices of text books caused a huge chasm between the teachers/administrators and the parents and it got very much out of control.

California and Texas are the only two states that buy text books in a block as a state. Much of the country buys their books by county, supervisory union or even city or town. Because Texas and California buy in such bulk, they can dictate much in regards to content. Talk about culture wars, the difference between these two states, in regards to culture, is wide. With California's budget in turmoil, the Texas State Board of Education has an even bigger influence on this market now. Not that they are actively manipulating the decision making. But if a text book publisher has a choice between appeasing a huge customer and not ... changing a word or a chapter here and there may not be out of the question. This is just something to think about when junior takes his/her textbook home from school.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Roger Ebert

Like many people my age, I was first exposed to film criticism by the show Sneak Previews which started broadcasting on PBS in 1975. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewed films while sitting in a movie theater giving them thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Since then, thumbs up or down have become a cliche. This show and their later show, At the Movies, have had many incarnations and many imitations since. I probably owe these two guys great thanks in saving me from movies like Tron and introducing me to great American cinema. If not for them, I may not have seen Apocalypse Now as a kid in the theaters when it first came out.

For those who think people who are critics do so because they cannot create their respective art themselves might find this interesting. Ebert actually has some screen writing credits under his belt. The most notable is the screenplay to the Russ Meyer cult film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which some might say is not quite so notable.

You may have noticed that you haven't seen Ebert on television lately. He has not passed away but he did have a bout of thyroid cancer. He has had part of his jaw removed and he can no longer talk, eat or drink. He still writes reviews.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The US Army Corps of Engineers

The Army Corp of Engineers is one of those organizations that you don't hear much about until something goes wrong. We hardly heard them mentioned at all until Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Then everyone is asking about what happened to the levees? It is odd how accountability is rarely an issue until we hand out blame.

The Corp was started when General Washington and the Continental Congress, during the American Revolutionary War, appointed Colonel Richard Gridley as chief engineer of the army. One of their first projects was to build fortifications around Breeds and Bunker Hill in Boston. Most of the actually engineers at the time were French civilians hired by Washington. The Corp didn't become a separate entity until 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson.

Today's Corp consists about over 30,000 civilians and over 600 military personnel. Some of the more famous projects that Corp has worked include the Panama Canal, the Washington Monument, the Pentagon and the Manhattan Project.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


One of the greatest resources on the net is Snopes. I used it today to debunk an email my wife received from a friend about a Facebook virus. The email was a little bogus and we confirmed this on snopes. It is go to place to confirm not only rumors about computer viruses but urban legends in general. Snopes was founded and still run by a married couple, Barbara and David Mikkelson. recently reviewed Snopes' political links and they were deemed unbiased in regards to Bush, Palin and Obama. gets its name from some lesser known novels by William Faulkner often called The Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Village and The Mansion). The Snopes are an unpleasant southern family. The patriarch Ab is a barn burner (are there any Faulkner works without a barn burner?), a sharecropper and a horse thief. I could find over 20 characters named Snopes in Faullker works referenced on several different web sites. Until today, I had not heard of any of them.

Friday, February 26, 2010


A MacGuffin is a plot device that writers use to grab the reader's attention and drives the plot but doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with the rest of the story. MacGuffins are used a lot in film, particularly by Hitchcock. He invented the term.

My favorite example of a MacGuffin is the $40,000 in the movie Psycho. If you think about the plot, you don't necessarily think of the money, you think of the Bates Motel or Norman's relationship with his mom ... or perhaps the shower scene or the eerie scene on the stairs ... What a great film! You have to really think about the film to even remember the $40,000. It is what brings Janet Leigh's character, Marion Crane to the Bates Motel. She stole the money from her employer and she is run away. The money is only important in that it brings her away from her normal safe world into the scary world of Norman. Upon first watching this film, the money is a distraction which you quickly forget about after the shower scene.

A more recent example is R2D2 in the original Star Wars. George Lucas refers to this androids a MacGuffin because he drives the plot of the film but it has little to do with the story. All the characters in the film are brought together by R2D2 but the droids has no importance other than that in the story.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The New Hendrix Album

March 9th of 2010 is a very exciting day for musicheads like myself. Valleys of Neptune, the latest record by Jimi Hendrix, is being released. Hendrix died over 40 years ago, but there is still previously unreleased music sitting around waiting to be released. These songs were recorded in that dark period after Electric Ladyland when fans didn't know whether The Experience had broken up or not.

The new album is expected to be one of the best records of the year. It includes seven unreleased songs: "Valleys of Neptune," "Hear My Train a Comin'," "Mr. Bad Luck," "Loverman" "Ships Passing Through the Night," "Lullaby for the Summer" and "Crying Blue Rain." Also, new instrumental cover of Creme's "Sunshine of Your Love" and Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart." Three redo's of his old classics "Stone Free," "Fired" and "Red House" will also be on the album. This is very exciting. Hendrix is arguably rock's best guitarist.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Presidential Polling

CNN released results from a poll this week that shows that over 50% of Americans think Obama shouldn't run for a second term. This sounds shocking but I just heard one of my favorite journalists, Jack Beatty (someone I trust), say that Ronald Reagan had similar numbers in his first year. I haven't been able to confirm this anywhere on the net, but to be honest I didn't try that long. It makes sense to me though. The unemployment rate was extremely high when he took office. He inherited Carter's mess much like Obama inherited Bush's. People want miracles and don't have the patience that an economic recovery could take. I won't expect the employment situation to be good until 2012 or so which doesn't bode well for a re-election. Whether he caused it or not, doesn't seem to matter much. He owns it regardless.

I lived through the Reagan era and I have to admit he is not one of my favorite presidents. I cringe when I hear someone raving about him. They seem to think that everyone liked him ... wanting to put his face on currency and mountain sides etc. In my search for the Beatty data today I stumbled on some other interesting data that does show that I am not alone. I found an article on the Gallup web site that shows the average presidential approval rating since WW II. Reagan's approval is not only not the highest but surprisingly low. He is only high if you compare him to the three presidents before him. Some say that his greatest accomplishment is that he restored the electorate's faith in the presidency. He didn't restore mine, but the numbers show a different story about the average. They are certainly higher than Nixon's, Ford's and Carter's. Big whoop! Bush 43 is not in the list yet. The article is from 2004 so the numbers were not in yet. I would love to see them added to this graph.

Clinton, Bush 41, Eisenhower, Johnson and Kennedy all had a higher average approval rating than Reagan ... and there is no talk of putting any of them up on Mt. Rushmore.